Autumn will last a while; winter will be hard: the case of Amsterdam

Those who believe in ecological resilience follow the signs.  Not the stages of the moon or the zodiac, but biological signs.  On our recent trip to Malawi and Kenya, the acacia trees once again were great predictors of the short rains.  They turn green and flower after months of drought and the rains come soon after.  It all happened during the month I was there.

At our Delta outpost, the gourds flowered late this year, only setting fruit in the last few days.  This means they think there is going to be a long fall so they can fully develop fruit with good, healthy seed inside.  They have never failed to grow big gourds with plenty of seed in the 22 years we’ve been planting them in the Delta.

adaptive-cycle-basicsSpeaking of autumn lasting a while, autumn illustrates one phase in the adaptive cycle of all living systems.  We’ve discussed the adaptive cycle, first described by Fritz Hollings in 1973, many times in this space.  Go back and look at past blogs if you have forgotten the details.  Use the search feature on this page.

Speaking of autumn at the scale of nations, when in Malawi last month, we noticed a beautiful blonde girl sitting by herself every breakfast and supper.  So we made friends and invited her to eat dinner with us at the restaurant operated by the mother of a friend of ours.  This great cook lived in England for awhile, now has a British husband and knows how to cook for Europeans.

During dinner at her restaurant, the blonde girl, who turned out to be a Dutch physician, informed us that she did not pray at all (when we tried to start the meal with grace) even when the locals insist on starting and ending training sessions with prayer.  She told us 80% of Dutch people were atheist and believed in euthanasia and abortion and not having many children.  They’ve also banned pesticides to control weeds in their biggest city.

The result of all these liberal attitudes is good for wildlife in Amsterdam.  According to a recent article in

Seals peep from Amsterdam’s famous canals, while rare bats huddle in the eaves of houses, next to nesting birds. Wildlife—of the animal kind—is on the rise in the teeming Dutch capital.

More than 10,000 different animal species roam the city’s nooks and crannies, sharing space already packed with around 800,000 Amsterdamers and millions of annual tourists, according to a new study.

And it appears to be an exodus out of the countryside, providing a potent illustration of the natural world’s extraordinary resilience, experts and scientists say.

Since 2012 small grey or brown furred harbour seals have occasionally been known to travel down from the North Sea coast, arriving in Amsterdam after slipping through locks at the town of IJmuiden and swimming down the North Sea Canal to the city.

And on a rare occasions a lucky few spot the bigger grey seals, a protected European species with their distinctive mottled coat, or even the occasional porpoise.

“Biodiversity in Amsterdam has increased in the last decades, which has not been the trend nationally or even internationally,” said Geert Timmermans, head of the city’s ecology and landscape architecture project.

The new study of Amsterdam’s biodiversity shows more than a quarter of all animal species living in The Netherlands, including some 300 protected kinds, are found in the densely populated city.

Part of the recovery of biodiversity is attributed to a ban on using pesticides to control weeds, as well as on farmland beyond the city limits.

And according to WWF Netherlands, the damage caused by humans appears to be more limited in Dutch cities where animal populations have only fallen by 30 percent since 1990, compared to the hedgerows and dunes which have seen a drop of 50 percent and 40 percent in the countryside.

Urban planners meanwhile have also increased their focus on maintaining so-called “ecological corridors” or green spaces.

Natural evolution

“Nature always exists. It adapts, it uses new situations to ensure that it can install itself,” said biologist Jelle Reumer, the former director of Rotterdam’s museum of natural history.

He created waves earlier this year by suggesting that people should not try to intervene to save endangered animals like the panda or rhinoceros, but should allow things to evolve naturally.

“Extinction is normal. More species have become extinct throughout geological history than are alive today,” Reumer, a professor in Earth Sciences at Utrecht university, told AFP.

It is Amsterdam’s leafier, wetter outskirts which have proved the most fertile ground for animals looking to set up home.

Here natterjack toads, red squirrels, foxes and voles along with the blue-winged grasshopper can be spotted trying to keep out of the clutches of birds of prey like hawks and peregrines.

A soprano pipistrelle bat was spotted in Amsterdam for the first time last year, while there is “a cautious recovery” of the swift and sparrow population which had gone into decline.

In cities, where several different micro-climates can exist, buildings have replaced cliffs as homes for the pigeons. While the warmer temperatures—sometimes 10 degrees C higher than in the countryside—have caused fig trees to flourish in Utrecht and attracted an Italian grasshopper to The Netherlands.

But other experts argue the situation is much more complex and it is hard to compare ecosystems.

“There is less biodiversity in the Arctic compared to tropical rainforests. But it is just as unique,” stressed Martin Poot, a researcher with the Dutch statistics office.

“That is the same for the town or the country.”

The Exterminator

But in the countryside, the large-scale industrialisation of agriculture has led to the disappearance of two-thirds of the wild birds since the 1960s. Sightings of cranes, oystercatchers, redshanks and larks are increasingly rare.

It is mankind turning the countryside into an “agricultural desert of cornfields, and cows and only one kind of grass,” said Reumer

Still, as time passes, species will evolve, he insisted, adding that “cities are very young in geological time. Evolution takes thousands, if not millions of years.”

The Earth is now facing “its sixth wave of mass extinction,” said Reumer, but it is not caused by a meteorite such as wiped out 40 to 60 percent of living species at the end of the Cretaceous period, or a volcanic eruption which killed off 90 percent of species in the Permian period some 252 million years ago.

Today’s exterminator-in-chief is mankind.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates some 28 percent of mammal species are currently facing extinction.

“But mankind is also the only species capable of thinking about what it is doing,” Reumer stressed—tasking cities like Amsterdam with protecting nature.

“It’s not too late.”

Breeding and culture: chickens and their watch dogs

Genetics and environment are not separate, but interact to create systems which adapt and evolve.  The various breeds of chicken all resulted from a small and insignificant dinosaur which grew wings and thereby escaped the cataclysm which destroyed all its fellow dinosaurs.  The various species of birds arose through adaptation to environments all over the world.  The famous flightless birds of Australia and New Zealand had no land predators and found it unnecessary to maintain all the adaptations required for flight.


A species in Southeast Asia was adopted by the local people, selected for domesticity and productivity, and became what we call “chicken.”  Asians coming to America found another species which seemed willing to live with them.  This became today’s turkey (though why we have stuck with that name I’ll never understand).

Turkeys have a wonderful history intertwined with the Anasazi and Pueblo Indians (another word which no one has ever been able to adequately replace).  Read all about it in the links that follow.  Those of you who love a properly cooked turkey (my son and daughter-in-law do it the best) may be surprised to learn that turkeys were originally cultivated for their feathers, not for their meat or eggs.  It was almost a thousand years after they were domesticated that they began to be used for food.  Maybe the Anasazi got desperate while hiding in their cliff palaces from their enemies.

Chicken was also not domesticated for food.  The red jungle fowl still roams Southeast Asia and breeds with domestic chickens now and then.   The jungle fowl, known as the bamboo fowl in many Southeast Asian languages, is a special pheasant well adapted to take advantage of the large amounts of fruits that are produced during the end of the 50-year bamboo seeding cycle to boost its own reproduction. In domesticating the chicken, humans took advantage of this prolific reproduction of the jungle fowl when exposed to large amounts of food.  However, most poultry aficionados contend chickens spread from Thailand as participants in cock fighting games.  Only later did Westerners decide the chicken was not just for fighting, but for eating.

I have never heard of an organized cock fight near Meadowcreek, but there has probably been one, given how popular the sport was in the days when the Little Red River and Meadow Creek were at their population peak about a hundred years ago.

Yesterday, we about doubled the number of chickens at Meadowcreek.  A generous benefactor in Missouri donated some extremely valuable heritage breed chickens for us to care for and benefit from.  These chickens had to endure a torrential rainstorm in vicious St. Louis traffic and then a night in a motel parking lot before they found their new home at the Resilience House.

Chickens are notorious for pecking on the weakest of their flock when kept confined.  One barely survived the trip and is now being nursed back to health inside with its new mother.  The others are in a newly built structure on the only level ground not occupied by gardens.

The human who ferried them through the downpours and cities arrived with a sore back after 20 hours of driving in two days.  The truck carrying them also objected, but the help of good Samaritans in Rolla, Missouri, put us back on the road.  The mission is complete.  Now to introduce these plump, pampered chickens to the wildlife of Meadowcreek.  We hope they like ticks as much as we hate them.  Guinea fowl are said to be the best at removing ticks from a property, but we think chickens can do the trick, too.

We’ll see.  We got two beautiful eggs from the drive, so we’re pretty sure we will have plenty of eggs from these girls, if they can adapt to the ten or so predator species which live at Meadowcreek and love the less wary chickens.  We do need a good watch dog to live at the chicken coop and protect them.  Anyone need a good home for a puppy with chicken husbandry genes?

An academic thesis on Anasazi and turkey:

Good general article on the origin of turkeys:

Forest garden: order tree seedlings now

Resilience agricultural systems always include trees and other perennials.

If you want to be resilient, you have to have perennials in at least part of your system.

The reasons are many and we won’t try to convince you now, but if you already know its true, then you need to start planning to incorporate perennials in your system.

witch-hazel-999520_960_720At Meadowcreek, the Resilience project is enhancing the existing forest to create what some call a food forest.  We already have lots of paw paws and such scattered through the woods, but we have a designated area where we are planting all the species we like best.

Good quality seedlings are required to make our food forest a reality.  We do not dig up wild plants to transplant.  Instead we have found a great source of tree seedlings not far from us.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has a nursery at Licking, Missouri where they grow hundreds of wild species native to the Ozarks.

We order from them every year.  Last year we got persimmon and witch hazel and Osage orange.  It’s a nice drive from Arkansas to pick them up in the Spring.  They are always high quality and dirt cheap.

Check out their website and catalog.  You can order online.

Here’s the link to the catalog:

Order soon because they do run out of certain species early–especially paw paw.

Then start planning where you want to plant them.

If you don’t prepare the site ahead of time, you’ll probably get low survival.

You’ll also need to water them the first year to make sure they do well, especially with the droughty months which seem to come all too often these days.

For tips on planting a food forest or forest garden for resilience, see Chapter 4  of our book, available free online at:

Especially applicable for the perennial seedlings you will plant this coming Spring is the section on forest gardens starting on page 74.  We like the seven layer method to maximize productivity.

So order your seedlings now from a reputable source, plan where you will put them, and happy forest gardening.

We must not feed the world

Yesterday, a major farm state newspaper featured an editorial which almost perfectly captures what ecological resilience researchers have been saying for years:  shipping food to hungry nations undermines resilience of those societies and our own.

dscn7127-2In the last month in Africa, I saw both the pressure to feed hungry people and the destruction wrought by overpopulation.  Six children is an average family in rural areas in Malawi.  The population has grown from 3 million at independence to 11 million today.. Trying to make a living has led to a landscape stripped of trees.

In a previous visit to Africa, I found that many men in rural Uganda have a dozen children by multiple wives.  Sacks of grain donated by US and Europe sit in every home.  They can’t grow near enough to feed their children on their small plots.  But grain produced by polluting Midwest rivers enables them to have as many children as they like.

Here’s what the Des Moines Register said:

As farmers harvest another bin buster this fall, we often hear talk about Iowa’s duty to “feed the world.”

Except we don’t. We can’t, and we shouldn’t.

Our farmers are experts at producing a bounty, and they have gotten the message that they must do so to feed a growing planet. But the truth is, the most effective way to reduce world hunger is to help small farmers in Africa, Asia and elsewhere increase their productivity and income.

Most U.S. agricultural exports go to countries whose citizens can afford to pay for them. A new report by the Environmental Working Group found:

  • 86 percent of the value of U.S. agricultural exports last year went to Canada, China, Mexico, Europe, Japan and 15 other markets with low numbers of hungry people, according to the U.N. Development Program. In 2015, animal feed, led by soybeans and corn, contributed 40 percent ($39.3 billion) of the total value of the top 25 U.S. agricultural exports.
  • Only half of one percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to a group of 19 undernourished countries that includes Haiti, Yemen and Ethiopia.

The claim that U.S. agriculture “feeds the world” is not a harmless myth. It provides a moral justification for continuing practices that have harmed Iowa’s environment and led to low prices for farmers. It also can be used as political ammunition.

At the Farm Progress Show in Boone last summer, Iowa agriculture leaders warned of threats such as regulations, lawsuits and consumer backlash.  “If we don’t unite and fight for our ability to operate, we won’t be successful in meeting our vision of feeding the world’s growing population,” said Craig Hill, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation president.

Instead of fighting back, perhaps Hill and other leaders should heed this message: Consumers don’t expect you to feed the world. A 2015 study by the Center for Food Integrity shows that only 25 percent of consumers surveyed believe, “The U.S. has a responsibility to provide food for the rest of the world.” Respondents were more interested in access to healthful, affordable food.

This is not to say that the U.S. shouldn’t look for more markets to export its farm products. Iowa’s economy has certainly benefited from trade. Exports of pork from Iowa totaled $1.4 billion in 2014, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association. About 36 percent of Iowa’s soybean crop — including whole soybeans, meal and oil — is exported annually, the Iowa Soybean Association says.

A business opportunity, however, is not the same as a moral imperative. Iowa must balance the economic benefits of trade with the cost of feeding a few wealthy countries. How much should Iowa bear the environmental consequences of satiating growing appetites for meat in China and other nations?

Or can we bear the burden in other ways, such as investing more in agricultural research and development aid in developing nations? What practices and technologies should we encourage to help farmers here and abroad produce more without harming water, soil and air?

Iowans have the opportunity to consider such questions this week during the awarding of the World Food Prize in Des Moines. The Borlaug Dialogue will focus on improving nutrition and fortifying crops in developing nations. Speakers at several public events around the state will discuss how to help small farmers in Africa, how reducing childhood malnutrition can boost a society’s prosperity, how to address climate change and how Iowa can better care for its own hungry people.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and other activists will hold alternative events protesting the role of industrial agriculture, holding rallies and awarding the Food Sovereignty Prize.

Expect a vigorous debate and disagreement on the most effective way to “feed the world.” But let’s begin by setting aside myths about Iowa’s role and responsibility.

Mars is Earth’s future

The two oldest monotheistic religions, wherever they’ve taken hold for long enough, are accompanied by desertification.  Is that a coincidence?  Or did the same occur to cities of the Zoroastrians and nearly all non-nature worshiping religions before monotheism arose?  And did the same not occur in the American Plains up until the 1930s?  The Soil Conservation Service, today’s NRCS, did much to limit this trend, but many parts of the United States are still becoming desert due to overgrazing and other misuse by man.  Other areas, though not yet desert (see Iowa) lose more topsoil in one heavy downpour than can be replaced by natural processes in hundreds of years.


The “subdue the earth” religion zealots along with similarly zealous atheists haven’t had control of the Americas long enough for it to become as barren as much of Africa and central Asia, but we are working on it.  The recent pictures sent back by the Mars Rover show a landscape very similar to many parts of Kenya and Ethiopia where I have worked and which used to be verdant, productive lands with deep soils.

Is Mars our future? Or can something be done to halt the worldwide desertification caused directly by man?

I sure hope so, but the trends in Africa, the former Soviet Union and America are not encouraging.

For the past month, I’ve been working with smallholders in Malawi and Kenya to try to design production systems which can reverse those trends.  Thanks to the Farmer-to-Farmer program implemented by CNFA in Malawi and CRS in Kenya, I’ve been able to get out in some rural areas where booming populations of people, goats and cattle are denuding the land, making erosion and desertification all but inevitable.

Farmer cooperatives in these regions have to focus on increasing income because these folks are dirt poor.  Lost luggage meant that I had to survive with just two shirts and two pair of pants for the first part of this trip, but most of the folks in my trainings are lucky to have one outfit they can wear out among their peers.  We hand out 20 cent exercise books and 10 cent ink pens and the farmers are so happy.  Paper is something they don’t see much in their houses–except maybe the pages of a Bible in the flusher homes.

Making more money from your land is often seen as requiring environmental damage.  NRCS calculates “tolerable erosion”or “T” values for US cropland.  Whether any erosion is tolerable is debatable, but let’s discuss that later.  Estimated erosion by rainfall has decreased in the US since 1982 n relation to T values on cultivated cropland.  But wind erosion has increased.  Over 42% of total cultivated cropland in the US has an estimated wind erosion about the tolerable level.  This 42% (8,309,300 acres) accounts for  82% of estimated annual soil loss in the US.

For those of us living in the Delta the blowing clouds of dust are matched only by the billowing clouds of smoke from burning crop residues when farmers are preparing their fields for planting.

Delta farmers are willing to trade off ecological damage for the money that has made many of them rich and enabled them to have houses in town and the Ozarks and Little Rock–where their families don’t have to endure the smoke and dust their farming practices kick up.

Farmers in Kitui, Kenya, and Kasungu, Malawi are not so lucky.  They have to live with the destruction of their ecosystems.  I was glad I had wrap-around sunglasses to keep the dust out of my eyes during our sessions.  My students just squinted and teared up and carried on.

I hope I’m leaving them with plans for productive, ecologically resilient food systems.  We’ll see.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as we say in the “Show Me” state.  So I’ll be back every year for the forseeable future to see if we can stop the desertification which has been going on for generations and shows no sign of abating.